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Preflight Interview: José Hernández, Mission Specialist
08.10.09
JSC2009-E-007405 -- José Hernández

Astronaut José Hernández, STS-128 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits the start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

› Read interview in Spanish

This is the STS-128 interview with Mission Specialist José Hernández. José, tell me about your hometown and what it was like growing up there.

Well, I’m from Stockton, California. I was born and raised in Stockton, California most of my time. I traveled to Mexico quite a bit as well, but the bulk of my time was spent in California. It’s in the Central Valley, the heart of San Joaquin Valley, mainly an agricultural base city where lots of vegetables, fruits are grown and exported throughout the country and throughout the world, as a matter of fact. And so that’s where I spent most of my childhood.

Okay. You have a rather interesting story, an inspiring story. Stockton was home, but you and your family spent quite a bit of time traveling to work. Tell us about that.

Sure, well, I come from a very humble family and what I would call a typical migrant farm working family and lot of people would say, “Well, what’s a typical migrant farm working family?” Well, my parents are originally from the state of Michoacán, in Central Mexico. The city is called La Piedad and what would happen is, around the March timeframe, February, March timeframe, my dad would load up the kids and my mom in the car and we would make the two day trek up to California and then once we were in California we would basically start working in the fields. Obviously when I was in, when it was the school year, my parents put lots of emphasis in education so we went to school but Saturday and Sunday we worked in the fields alongside with my parents and we would, my dad would follow basically the harvest starting off in Southern California and making our way to Northern California where we spent the bulk of our time, which was around Stockton. And then we would do that routine, of course, summer would come along and then that would mean seven days out of the week we were working out in the fields alongside our parents and then the fall would roll around, go back to school but around November, late November Dad would pack up the kids and my mom in the car again and we would now make what’s a two and a half day trip back to Michoacán. And then of course the year, we would spend the holidays there and then the process would repeat itself the next year in March.

As you said, you use the word ‘typical’. It sounds like a lot of hard work to me but that’s probably, it was what you were used to.

Exactly, it’s the only life I knew and it was typical. I think the only atypical portion of that whole story was the fact that my parents put a lot of emphasis in education in spite of them only having a third grade elementary school education, they put lots of emphasis in it and the atypical portion of it was the fact that during the school year, Monday through Friday, they would put us in school, and there was a lot of families that would typically pull the kids out of school just so they could help with the household income.

So I’m sure, one of the byproducts of that, you mentioned education. That it was a hard working life but education became a serious priority. How do you think that’s influenced who you’ve become and the things that you’ve accomplished up to this point?

I think that has influenced me on, it’s demonstrated to me the importance of education and the importance of not being afraid to dream and then translating that dream into tangible goals and then understanding the steps needed to reach those goals and if you look at that then the whole key to this, to reaching those goals is preparing yourself for it and that’s getting yourself a good education. But coupled with that I think it’s also having a good family support structure that supports you in those dreams and in your education endeavors and I think that’s the whole key. I think you follow that formula and anyone can succeed given those parameters.

At what point in life do you recall getting the notion that, "Hey, it might be cool to actually be an astronaut. That seems like a pretty cool thing to do and I think I can do it.”

I think, well, lucky enough it happened when I was young. Fortunately I’m old enough to remember the tail end of the Apollo era and so I remember the very last mission when the astronauts were walking on the moon. We were in Stockton at that time and, of course, the family, during that time all the families would gather around the TV to watch the moonwalks and we were no different. The only difference is we didn’t have cable. We had the rabbit ear antennas and the big console black and white TV that was very snowy and once in a while we would get that horizontal line that goes up and down the frame where we would have to hit on the side to make that stop. Of course, I was the youngest one in the family and when the moonwalks were occurring we wanted to get the best picture on the TV so who do you guess they sent to go and adjust the rabbit ear antennas? So there I was, adjusting the antenna. Of course, once you touch it you get the best reception and so the whole family tells you, “Hey, don’t let go” and here I am trying to watch the TV while holding on to the antenna and adjusting it and now I kid around with my family saying that it was through osmosis that I became an astronaut ‘cause I was closest to the whole situation. But I was about nine years old at that time and I think I was small enough, ignorant enough to realize that, to not realize how hard it would be to become an astronaut and so that’s what’s basically fueled my dream is the fact that I didn’t know how hard it was. Else, I think if I would have understood the whole big picture, I probably would have shied away from it because I would have convinced myself it’s too hard, it’s not reachable. But I’m glad that dream came into me when I was as young as I was and it stayed with me. I’m sure every nine year old at that time had that dream but it stayed with me and I kind of formulated a plan and said, “You know, I’m going to go be an astronaut” and lucky enough, I was able to get selected.

Let’s talk about then the steps that you took from there to actually get to here starting with your educational background. How did you proceed from there?

Well, I think, as I mentioned we used to travel up and down California throughout the school year so you could imagine, and Spanish was the dominant language at home so you can imagine the interruptions of going from school district to school district in one school year and then missing about two or three months of school towards the end of the calendar year, made it very difficult for us to be good students. And it wasn’t until I was in second grade, my second grade teacher I told her, it was November. I told her, “Hey, we’re going to Mexico. Can I have three months worth of homework so I do homework in Mexico?” I’m the youngest so she already had my two brothers and sisters in her class so she knew the routine and she rolled her eyes and she said, “Tell your dad and mom that I’m going to come home and speak to them.” And it was Mrs. Young. I still remember her quite vividly, and she actually came to the house and explained the situation to my parents in her broken Spanish and my parents’ broken English. They somehow communicated and got the point across that in terms that my parents could understand and saying that they should set roots in one place so that their kids could have a good chance of getting a good education and that’s what I think, that’s when we started staying, making Stockton our home on a year round basis. Yes, we’d go back to Mexico but now it would be only two or three weeks at a time and so we started doing very well in school. I was more apt to do well in math because of the English language barriers early on in my school years and so I naturally gravitated to the sciences and, of course, when I got the dream of becoming an astronaut, that stuck with me and that coincided with my dream and it wasn’t until high school, when I was a senior in high school that I realized that my dream was reachable because I heard a story that the first Latino American got selected as a NASA astronaut. That was Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz who comes from Costa Rica and when I read his story I read he came from humble beginnings very similar to my story. There was a lot of parallels and that’s when I challenged myself. I said, “Hey, if Franklin can do it, why can’t I do it?” And that’s when I promised myself that I was already college bound at that time, but I promised myself that I would do everything in my power to try and get selected as an astronaut and it took me twelve years ‘cause I applied for twelve years so there’s an element of perseverance and improving your situation each time you apply, try to improve and grow career-wise so that you become a better candidate for NASA and lucky enough after twelve years of perseverance I did get selected in 2004.

So you graduated from Franklin High School. Tell us about your college.

Yes, I stayed in my hometown, and the main reason for that was economics. It was cheaper to stay at home and I got a scholarship to attend University of the Pacific so I did my four years at the University of the Pacific and then worked as a co-op student at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and worked a total of one year as an engineer there at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. They offered me a job once I graduated but I knew that if I wanted to become an astronaut I needed at least a graduate degree and so I asked permission from Lawrence Livermore to leave the lab and go for a year and a half to UC/Santa Barbara and get my Master’s Degree in electrical engineering. And, of course, they agreed and they promised to hire me back. At the time I didn’t know if that was true or not, but I say, “I’m going to take the risks and get my Master’s.” Of course, they did hire me back and I came back, started working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and one of the things I did at Lawrence Livermore is I tried to guide my career that was consistent with what I wanted to become which was an astronaut and so the very first project that I latched onto was a Star Wars project; was development of an x-ray laser for defense application, basically was going to be an x-ray laser that was going to be deployed up in space and so I had to learn about orbital mechanics, about how electronics would react in the harsh environment of the vacuum of space and so all things appealed to me so I naturally gravitated to that project. After that the project got cancelled because, of course the Soviet Union broke down and so there was no big bad wolf anymore and so we did technology transfer and some of the work that I was doing in x-ray physics was applicable to the development of a fulfilled digital mammography system for early detection of breast cancer. And so that had a medical aspect to it which to myself I thought again, “Okay, NASA would like this. The more I know about medical, the subject of medical issues, I think NASA would be more inclined to look at my application.” So I took that and ran with it and we developed that first full field digital mammography system at the laboratory. That’s probably the project I’m most proud of today. And then from there finally I moved to the, kind of came full circle, started working the nuclear nonproliferation arena and started working with the Russians in disposing of their excess nuclear material in the form of, they processed it so that it wouldn’t be usable for weapon systems any more. And so that took me, in the period of five years I probably made twenty-four, twenty-five trips to the Russian-Siberian frontier where they have all of their weapon processing complexes out there.

JSC2009-E-141436 -- José Hernández

Astronaut José Hernández, STS-128 mission specialist, is pictured during a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

After so many times of applying to NASA there came that point in that time where one of the applications was answered with, “Hey, you want to come down?” Tell us that story. What was that like that day?

Sure, I think it was six years into the application process that I made it to what’s called the coveted 100 finalists where the hundred individuals get invited to spend a week at NASA and get interviewed and you go through a series of psychological, physical exams and then interviews and then, of course, you visit the site. And so at that time I thought, that was 1998. I thought, “Okay, if I made it to this, to the final 100, if I could just get through the medical, hopefully I’m in.” And, of course, I made it through the medical. About twenty percent get medically disqualified but I made through the medical and that put me in the category of eighty and about half of those get a security background check and that’s just so that NASA doesn’t get embarrassed and hires a convicted felon and so I made it through, that was forty, ‘cause I knew they were doing a background check on me so I had high expectations but, of course, in ’98 I did not get selected. They called me up and said, “You were close but no cigar.” Then in 2000, two years later they had another selection. Same thing happened. I made it to the forty. This time I was a little bit more humble and I say, “Okay, I may not make it.” And again I did not make it. This time they offered me a job to come work at NASA and so I took them up on their offer and worked for four years before the next selection which was in 2004 and, as I say, third time’s a charm. I did get interviewed and I did get select in 2004.

Tell us about what you did before you were selected as an astronaut here at NASA. What was your job?

Well, I worked at the, I came and started working as an engineer and basically working in the Engineering Structures Division and working in the Non-Destructive Evaluation area. After approximately about six months I quickly found myself to be the Branch Chief and so I worked for a period of about three and a half years as Branch Chief of Materials and Processes Branch. And there I had a group of about thirty, thirty-five engineers that we worked on failure analysis, non-destructive testing and basically a whole slew of, in support of the, not only the International Space Station but the shuttle program and so that allowed me to gain good insight as to how dedicated the folks here at NASA are in terms of their dedication towards the space program because a lot of these folks could be making more money out in the outside industry but I found that the dedication is second to none here at NASA where they’re here because they love doing their job and, of course, I was here because I love doing my job and I was part of it and so when I strap myself up in that rocket or they strap me in, I’m going to be feeling very comfortable knowing that everything has been done possible to make sure we have the safest journey up into space.

How do you feel, you basically are personification of what hard work and persistence can do; how do you feel about being that example especially for the Hispanic community?

Well, I think it’s a good story to tell that it’s much, I just look at it the way I received it when I was a senior in high school and read about Franklin Chang’s story, of how it empowered me to say, “If he did it, why can’t I do it?” And so, that’s the way I feel about my story saying that it’s a feel good story but it’s not a story to tell because, “Hey, look at me. I’m an astronaut. Look how good I am.” It’s more of a story to tell so that the folks that are listening and viewing this can say, “Hey, if he was able to do it, why can’t I do it?” So that’s what I’m hoping to do is to empower especially the Latino community, the Latino students, empower them to say, “Hey, José did it, why can’t I do it?” And so that’s how I feel about it.

You are on the verge of making your very first space flight. It won’t be long now before you’re going to be seeing a similar image to what’s over your shoulder here, space station, all the trusses, all the solar arrays there, truss fully laid out. What are your thoughts about that right now? How are you feeling about that anticipation right now?

Well, I think it’s the culmination of a dream in terms of what we, what I’ve been working towards with the support of my family and my parents and to me it’s something that’s going to be incredible. Obviously, I’ll probably take about two seconds to enjoy it and then roll up my sleeves and get to work because we have a lot of work to do in this mission and that’s what we’re going to focus on and we’ll have the pictures afterwards to then reflect and be able to then say, “ yeah, it was a great trip” kind of thing.

Tell me about the key objectives on this mission. What are you guys going to be doing on this mission?

Okay, well, basically we have three key objectives is the way I see it. The first one is we’re going to perform a crew rotation. We have seven crew members in our mission and Nicole Stott is one of our crew members. But once we get to the station, she’s going to stay on the International Space Station and we’re going to bring back home Tim Kopra who would have been there for approximately two months. So that’s one of the objectives. The other objective is we’re taking up the Multi Purpose Logistics Module, MPLM, and one of the things that we’re going to be doing with that is once we berth it to the International Space Station there’s a lot of science racks, equipment racks and other equipment that needs to be transferred from the MPLM onto the International Space Station. Finally we’re going to be working on performing three spacewalks, three EVAs and during those spacewalks we’re going to be repairing or replacing equipment such as the ammonia tank assembly, the RGA Rate Gyros and then preparing for another node that’s going to be coming on a subsequent flight, laying out the electrical conduit wire and so that when they connect they’ll have the plugs, the power if you will, to energize it. And so those, in a nut shell, those are the three main objectives that we’re going to be doing.

For people who may not be familiar with the Multi Purpose Logistics Module, can you kind of just describe it for us?

Sure, sure. As you know, with the International Space Station the compartments are a series of cylinders that are interconnected. Well, the MPLM, is no different. It’s a cylinder and I look at it more as a portable laboratory, is the way I like to see it and it’s about the size of a school bus, if you will, and it resides in our payload (bay) of the shuttle and once we dock to the International Space Station we’re going to be using the robotic arm to unberth it from the payload (bay) and we’re going to connect it to the International Space Station and then through the International Space Station we’ll have access to it to be able to access all the equipment that comes inside. After the mission once we’re winding down the mission we’re going to disconnect it from the International Space Station, reberth it to the payload (bay) and bring it back home with us. That’s why it’s called a portable systems, the Multi Purpose Logistics Module.

Tell us about what a Rate Gyro Assembly is. You mentioned that. That’s one thing that you guys are going to be working with. What does that piece of hardware do?

It’s actually a very important piece of hardware. We have several of them and there’s redundancy in them but a rate gyro system basically measures the roll, the pitch and the yaw of the space craft that it’s installed at and that, along with the GPS keeps the flight control system, feeds it to the Flight Control System of the International Space Station and helps it maintain its attitude, the proper attitude that we desire it to be with respect to the Earth and the sun for the solar panels and so it’s a very important piece of equipment that we’ll be replacing in one of our EVAs.

JSC2009-E-120836 -- José Hernández

Astronaut José Hernández, STS-128 mission specialist, uses the virtual reality lab in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center to train for some of his duties aboard the space shuttle and space station. This type of computer interface, paired with virtual reality training hardware and software, helps to prepare the entire team for dealing with space station elements. Photo Credit: NASA

The space station is now up to a six-person crew. It’s one thing to get to a six-person crew, but it’s another thing to actually sustain that crew with what they need. Talk about the importance of STS-128, the mission of STS-128, to helping sustain that crew as it is now.

Well, you bring up a good point. There’s going to be a crew of six now and we’re going to keep maintaining that and so the MPLM is key to keeping the crew because in bringing them, we’re going to be bringing science racks which then allows the crew to work on science experiments that need to be done. Now we have more bodies up in space and so we have more hands so more science can be accomplished. At the same time we’re also taking consumables like LiOH that are needed for a six person crew. We’re taking water, everything that a crew of six needs. We’re taking advantage of having the MPLM so that we can stock ‘em up for their missions so we look at ourselves as a carrier bringing them the supplies that they need, not only from consumables but to conduct the science that they need to conduct.

And also for exercise.

Also for exercise. We’re bringing in the next generation of treadmill. Nicole Stott’s going to be “Prime” for assembling it. We’ll be transferring it from the MPLM to the International Space Station and then once we leave she’s going to be assembling it and and getting it fully assembled so that a crew of six will have enough equipment to exercise.

After launching and getting to orbit and configuring the shuttle for its stay in space, you’ll eventually on Flight Day 2 do an inspection of the shuttle’s exterior with an imaging boom. Tell us about that process and what you on orbit and the ground, people on the ground will be looking for.

Sure. Well, basically what we do is we’ll use the shuttle robotic arm and connect it to the Orbiter Boom Sensor System, the OBSS, and at the tip of the OBSS, we basically have a series of sensors, at least three sensors out there that has a laser dynamic range imager, a laser camera system and a digital camera system which we will then use, with the extension of the boom it allows us to basically look at the wing leading edge of our thermal protection control system which is the reinforced carbon carbon. That allows us, using the different sensors, to look for any damage that may have occurred during the ascent portion of our mission. It also allows us to look under the under belly to look at the tiles to see if any damage occurred during ascent as well. So it’s a very important piece of inspection equipment that allows us to inspect the wings, the nosecap also made of RCC and if needed the belly for the tiles that protect us during reentry.

Then eventually sometime the next day you’ll have the station in your sights. You’ll start to engage the station. Talk about what you’ll be doing for the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight.

Absolutely. What we’ll be doing is, of course, we’ll be doing a rendezvous profile so that we can approach the station. Before we actually connect with the station the orbiter will basically do a three hundred and sixty degree turn so that we can show our belly to the station and they can take some good pictures of the underside of the station, of the shuttle to ensure that we don’t have, we didn’t experience any damage during the ascent. Once that maneuver’s performed, we’ll then continue with the docking phase with the International Space Station. My job is going to be basically working the computers and the cameras to ensure that the pilot and the commander have good cues, good visual cues as we approach the International Space Station.

There are three EVAs scheduled on this mission. On EVA 1 Nicole Stott, who will be a station crew member by that time, will go out with Danny Olivas. There’s a reason why she as a new station crew member is going to be doing this EVA. Talk about the rationale for why she’s doing it and the benefit of her doing that EVA.

Well, I think there’s a couple reasons why I think it’s a good thing to have Nicole do the spacewalk. The first thing is that she’s coming straight from the ground so she’s fully trained and most recently trained to do a spacewalk. The second reason is that it’s great to have her get the experience early on so that she’s going to stay there until November approximately. If there’s a need when the shuttle leaves and there’s no other shuttle, other astronauts that are fresh from the ground to be able to do a spacewalk if needed, we would have the complete confidence saying, “Well, Nicole has the experience. She’s done it before.” so she will be the go-to person to say, “Hey, we need you to do this and replace this orbital replacement unit that went bad on us and since you’ve done it, let’s have you do it.”

Talk about what Nicole and Danny will do outside on EVA 1. What work sites will they be in and basically what are they going to do?

Yes. Basically the biggest portion of that spacewalk is they’re going to be working on the Ammonia Tank Assembly and they’re going to be replacing an assembly on P1 and so they’ll be going down to the payload (bay) on the shuttle to retrieve the new tank and then going over to P1 area to commence the replacement portion. They won’t be able to complete the full job in one EVA so the second EVA will then take over to complete the job.

And during EVAs 2 and 3 there will be more work going on outside but on the inside you’ll be busy, too. You’ll be doing a lot of transfer to and from the MPLM. Talk about the logistics involved with that and just the magnitude of the job, basically.

Okay. Well, basically while these guys are doing EVAs 2 and 3 and replacing RGAs and laying out the conduit wire for the new node that’s going to be coming on a subsequent flight, what I’ll be doing is after I suit them up and send them off to do that work, I won’t be able to get to watch from the window and see their work but they’ll send me off to do transfer operations and that’s going into the MPLM and then I begin transferring science racks, equipment racks that need to be transferred to the International Space Station and it’s actually a very detailed process because there’s going to be hundreds of pieces of equipment in the MPLM that we have to keep track of and so it’s not just, they move this back from here to here, but inside the bag there can be another bag with another bag and so you just have to keep track of everything and make sure that nothing gets lost in the process and by the way I won’t be the only one doing this work, you know. Someone will take over my job when I have to do something else and so that’s why the documentation and closely monitoring where equipment is being stowed is very important so that the next person can basically, I can hand it over transparently to them so that there’s no issues associated with where we’re at with respect to transferring the equipment.

Is there a defined procedure for manipulating the pieces of equipment to get them through certain openings and what, I know from moving, moving myself, I mean, you go it, to a moving van and you figure, “Okay, this will fit that way or that will fit that way and this will move this way.” Is, I mean, are there procedures for…

Well, yes. There are some procedures and there’s also common sense, right? The nice thing about it is that we’re in a zero G environment, microgravity environment that’s going to allow us to - unlike moving the piano up the second floor of our house which is a difficult task or a sofa up the stairway, this is going to be a little easier in the sense that we’re going to be able to manipulate it a lot nicer. We just have to be, I think the key to this whole thing is just being gentle as you come across edges where you can bump equipment, you just got to be careful. The treadmill, T-2, is going to be a prime example of that where it’s a bulky piece of equipment that we just have to be careful and it’ll be more than a one-person job in being able to maneuver equipment that size from one area to another.

Once your work on orbit is completed you’ll say farewell to the station crew. You’ll close the hatches between the two spacecraft and you guys will spend the night in the shuttle. Then the next day you’ll undock. Tell us what you’ll be doing for the undocking part of the mission.

Well, for the undocking again it’s the reverse of the rendezvous operations that we did to dock to the International Space Station so we’ll have the commander and the pilot at the controls as we undock from the International Space Station and, of course, they’re going to need camera views and use of the computers and so I’ll be monitoring that aspect of it until we’re safely away from the International Space Station and can begin our operations for our reentry.

How do you imagine space station’s importance will be characterized in humankind’s history some years from now, centuries from now, when people routinely travel back and forth between Earth and other worlds based in part because of the work that’s being done on space station right now?

I think it’s going to be, I think it’s work that needs to be done. A lot of people say, “Hey, how can we engage the public in space exploration?” And one of the things that I would point out is that what we need to do is we just need to make people aware of the benefits of space exploration, how it’s helped our own planet here. The first thing I always like to tell folks is that, “Yes, we do spend a lot of money in space exploration but it’s not like we get the wheelbarrow and put the money out in space and it never comes back.” I mean, the money’s being spent here at home. The other thing is over fifteen hundred products have been developed as a result of space exploration and it’s products that are very necessary here for the improvement of life here on the planet. Things that we can point out to are water purification systems that are now being used in third world countries to clean their water. There’s also communication systems. There’s satellite TV. On the medical side, you got miniaturized type of equipment, medical equipment that - pacers, digital hearing aids - that have been developed. You know there’s a study out there that says for every dollar that the U.S. Government spends in space exploration, seven dollars of spinoff technology results where private enterprise benefits. To me that’s a huge rate of return and that’s the type of story that needs to be told in terms of what the benefit of space exploration is and that’s going to allow us to again be able to set up a colony in the moon and Mars and beyond in the future and we have to, as humans we, space exploration is in our blood. I mean, we have to give thanks to our ancestors who had the courage to cross the Atlantic Ocean and find a new world. We have to give thanks to our ancestors who pressed down the west and across the plains to make a better life for themselves and for us now and so we owe that to our future generations as well as saying, “Hey, we already know the world is round and we’ve explored every nook and cranny of the world, you know. It’s time that we start exploring other worlds.” And future generations are going to thank us for it.
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